DURBAN, South Africa, Dec 8 — Coal currently fuels 40 percent of global electricity needs, according to the World Coal Association, which argues there is a place for the abundantly available fuel even in a future with reduced emissions.
“Just as there are some bad examples of coal, there are good ones as there are many governments around the world that want to use coal in a way to fuel their economic growth and alleviate poverty, ” WCA CEO Milton Catelin told a side event on the role of coal in climate change at the 17th Conference of Parties in Durban.
“The trick from a policy and activity perspective is how do you make companies and governments that mine the coal to gasify it in a way that is environmentally sustainable.”
According to Catelin, the world has an estimated 984 billion tonnes of proven reserves of coal, but environmentalists have argued that coal should be done away with as energy source because it pollutes the environment.
The current negotiations for a new agreement on climate change hinge on cutting global emissions. The Coal Industry Advisory Board – a group of high level executives which advises the International Energy Agency – says coal is responsible for more than 40 percent of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions worldwide.
Speaking at the same side event in Durban, Norman Mbazima, CEO of mining giant Anglo American, said coal companies support cleaner use of coal. One way to achieve this is to improve the efficiency of coal plants in the world.
“The biggest contribution to emissions reduction comes from efficiency. We must all have more efficient cars, more efficient ships and more efficient planes, but most importantly more efficient coal-powered power plants,” said Mbazima.
Carbon capture and storage is also being touted as a way to save coal’s dirty face. The concept involves capturing, compressing and storage of carbon emissions from generating plants, preventing them from entering the atmosphere and contributing to global warming. CCS has been identified by the coal industry as a key technology that could help it cut greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, but it has not yet been demonstrated to be effective. Critics say even if the technique is developed and commercialised, it will likely prove to be prohibitively expensive.
Mbazima told the side meeting that 1.4 billion people in the world still lack access to electricity – 600 million of those in sub-Saharan Africa. He said coal was the answer to providing electricity to these people because it was plentiful and cheap even though it was not clean.
The WCA argues that if current coal-powered plants were replaced with more efficient plants, greenhouse gas emissions could be reduced by six percent. Carbon capture would enable further reductions.
But environmentalists say coal has no place in cleaner, greener future – or in the climate change mitigation agenda.
“We see coal as an unacceptable energy resource because of the extreme impacts it has on human health,” said Cesia Kearns, campaign organiser for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “We need to act now and the negotiators at COP17 need to pay attention to the conversation happening outside the venue and remember how much the weight their decisions will have on people from all nations who are bearing the burden of climate change. They need to get us quickly onto the path of doing away with coal and fossil fuel industries that have created the problem of climate change.”
Kearns said there are numerous alternatives to coal. Africa has abundant in solar and wind resources that should lead the way for green energy.
Jennifer Morgan, Director of Climate and Energy programme at environmental think-tank the World Resources Institute, says the argument about universal energy access depending on electricity from coal-fired plants has no basis.
Taking India as an example, she said the reason more than 400 million of people have no access to electricity is not so much the cost of expanding generation, as it is that urban areas, and industries in particular are prioritised for electricity supply – and in some cases sold power at very low prices, the government depriving itself of resources for rural electrification.
“We do not have time to act as if we have a lot of the atmosphere left,” Morgan warned. Her institute is crafting a policy framework for renewable energy and energy efficiency to help in promoting the development of renewable energy sources.